Photo of the Week – October 17, 2013

Last month, our Platte River Prairies crew visited a South Dakota farm owned by our friends Gerry Steinauer and Grace Kostel.  Gerry showed us around the farm, including some prairies he and Grace have been trying to rehabilitate.  It was late afternoon, and scattered fluffy clouds and golden prairie grasses made for a beautiful backdrop for our hike.

Anne and Eliza get a tour of a South Dakota prairie near Wagner, SD.

Gerry Steinauer gives Anne and Eliza a tour of his South Dakota prairie near Wagner, SD.

Even though wildflower blooming season is over for the year, there is still plenty to see in autumn prairies.  Fluffy white seeds of goldenrods and asters fly into the sky as we walk by.  Migrating sparrows pop out of the grass but quickly drop back down, giving us just enough time to make wild guesses about species identification.  Harriers course back and forth above the tall grasses, making flight look effortless and wonderful.  In every patch of short sparse vegetation, grasshoppers gather to soak up as much sun as they can before their season ends with the first hard freeze.  That freeze is yet to come, but the chill in the morning air leaves no doubt that it’s just around the corner.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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8 Responses to Photo of the Week – October 17, 2013

  1. Rex says:

    Looks like it is long on little bluestem. what is the history of this site?

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Rex, it’s had a history of herbicide spraying, and has been annually hayed, I think. Yes, pretty grass-dominated and low on forbs, but Gerry and Grace are working on that.

      • Grace Kostel says:

        Indeed, a 10-year history of patchy herbicide spraying along with some misguided applications of nitrogen, both of which were brought to an immediate halt in 2007. In addition, annual haying since 1977 (also halted in 2007). Pre 1977 use was grazing. Fire has resurrected the native grasses and some forb rich areas are present; albeit, few of them, but as Chris states “we are working on that”!

        • James McGee says:

          Hi Grace, I appreciate your efforts to act as a steward of your property. Could you please tell us the impacts you have observed from the nitrogen application? I have read that it reduces soil organic matter and in Midwestern prairies it tends to increase invasive blue grass.
          Sincerely,
          James

          • Grace Kostel says:

            James,

            I just caught up with your question and, to answer, I cannot really say that I ever noticed any impacts from the nitrogen applications. The practice had been initiated ca. 10 years ago by a lessee in the hopes of growing more grass, but no data were ever collected nor measures of soil organic matter. The annual haying (twice per year on a “good” year) had the greatest impact on this prairie along with the fire suppression. Our plans are not to seed at all, but rather to monitor the weakening hold of brome and the increasing amounts of native grasses (especially green needlegrass and porcupine grass) as these fill in. The forb content has steadily increased with the use of fire as well, sometimes quite spectacularly.

  2. James McGee says:

    A direct observation that Stephen Packard pointed out to me was that fire tends to reduce the thickness of smooth brome. I mention this because Smooth Brome appears to be frequent in Mr. Steinauer’s and Ms. Kostel’s prairie. The thinking is that the thinner stands of smooth brome will allow other species to germinate and grow in the space. The logic sounds good, although I do not have any data to back up the claim. The seeding has been very thin in the area of these observations. It is hard to tell results without data. The notable exception is the savannah species under the oaks. They have all done really well. Maybe this is because the savannah species are better adapted to some shade than the smooth brome.
    Sincerely,
    James

    • David says:

      James,

      Interseeding into smooth brome grass is a common technique in our area for increasing species richness. However, it does require frequent fire and removal of sweet clover to be most effective. From my observations, it works well in drier soils but not too well in richer, wetter soils. Maybe it just takes longer? One advantage to interseeding into brome is that maintenance is reduced. You do not get the massive weed flush common with initially killing the entire cool-season grass layer.

      David

  3. Jacob says:

    Based off of the description, there are many types of birds in that area.

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